Beyond the Postcard – Stumbling Upon the Best Lunch in Cancun, Mexico

The best part about traveling are the unexpected moments. Those “gems” that you stumble across that no one told you about, probably because they don’t know about them either. They provide a truly unique experience that can’t be deliberately replicated, they just happen.  A perfect example of this happened a few months ago while we were on vacation in Mexico; we did not expect to find the best lunch in Cancun, but we did.  And it became the highlight of our visit to Cancun.

Meet Raphael - Best Lunch in Cancun

Cancun – a Convenient Tourist Mecca!

Cancun wasn’t our ultimate Mexico destination, but we flew into the city because of the convenience and low price for tickets.  We knew it was very touristy and a bit crowded, but we looked forward to relaxing for a couple days on the white sandy beaches and enjoying the crystal blue water.   Even though we splurged to stay at a very nice all-inclusive resort, we found that we didn’t particularly like Cancun.

It lacked charm and authenticity, really anything to do with the culture of Mexico!  In fact, most of the tourists stay out in the “hotel zone” – a beautiful stretch of beach, but completely isolated.  Sprinkled among the seemingly endless number of resorts are a few tacky souvenir shops and chain restaurants, the same kind of restaurants that you would see in the States.  And to be honest, I don’t consider the Cheesecake Factory or PF Chang’s to be a culinary or cultural experience.

Stumbling Lunch - Pin

Plans Don’t Always Go Your Way – Make the Most of It!

Our plans for the second day in Cancun didn’t pan out due to some stormy weather in the area.  Even though we were bummed about not being able to go snorkeling, we wanted to make the most of our unexpected free-day in Cancun. Luckily, we had a rented a car in Cancun.  We decided to venture outside the tourist area to get to know the real Cancun.  So we headed into the center of town for a bit of shopping at some markets.

A view from the outside of the Mercado 28 in Cancun, Mexico. Cancun shopping, best lunch in cancun
A view from the outside of the Mercado 28 in Cancun, Mexico

While Looking for Our Car, We Find Food (of course)!

When we were finished wandering the market and haggling for a couple souvenirs in the popular Mercado 28, we decided to head back to the car.  Unfortunately, the market is set up like a maze…and we were a bit lost!  We decided to go to the outer edge of the market, and just walk around the outside until we found our car.

As we continued to walk the perimeter we suddenly were overcome with a delicious smell from a small white structure just beyond the market stalls.  This boxy structure had two walls that hinged open upward to create windows.  It also had a small bar area with a couple stools for sitting.  We walked over to check it out, and we were greeted by the warm, smiling face of Raphael.

Raphael's set up outside Mercado 28 in Cancun, Mexico. best lunch in cancun
Raphael’s set up outside Mercado 28 in Cancun, Mexico

Meet Raphael – Making the Best Lunch in Cancun!

“Hola, buenos dias!” he cheerfully said to us.  We returned the greeting in Spanish, but he could tell we spoke English, so he began talking to us in English — very good English.  We looked around at this small, makeshift restaurant.  There was barely room for Raphael and one other worker inside the building.

Intrigued by the wonderful aromas, we asked Raphael what smelled so good.  He responded “enmoladas de pollo.” Similar to enchiladas, it was chicken wrapped in corn tortillas, covered in a mole sauce (chocolaty goodness with spices) and a side of rice and black beans. It was the only meal on the menu today.  Raphael told us that each day he does something different.

Raphael's Kitchen - You can see the orange sign with today's special on it (the only menu item)!
Raphael’s Kitchen – You can see the orange sign with today’s special on it (the only menu item)!

Immediately our stomaches started screaming with hunger for that dish, so we ordered one to split and took a seat behind the stove so we could look over and continue to chat with our new friend.  His English was quite good, and he said that he had spent many years in California, and that he even went to college there.  But most of his family was here in Cancun, so he eventually returned to be near them as they grow older.

Fast-Food, Mexico Style!

As we sat there talking with Raphael, we noticed that he was knocking out meal after meal.  But we were the only customers sitting at the window!  So who was he cooking all this food for?  We noticed that his assistant would put the food into takeout containers, tie it in a bag, and send out with a runner / delivery person.  There were multiple runners, and we noticed them coming to and from the building every few minutes.

Raphael boxing up to-go orders while his runners add up the totals for delivery and collect payment.
Raphael boxing up to-go orders while his runners add up the totals for delivery and collect payment.

We asked Raphael about who all the food was for, and he said it was for his primary customers inside the market.  The whole reason his shop is set up here, is because of the workers inside the Mercado 28, this is their daily lunch.  The runners walk around inside the market telling workers of the daily specials and taking orders.  Then they run outside to put in the order and deliver it back to the workers inside.  Josh and I looked at each other and smiled, “well you can’t get a more local lunch than that” Josh said with a smile.

Raphael is hard at work on our lunch, and we get a front row seat! best lunch in cancun
Raphael is hard at work on our lunch, and we get a front row seat!

Other Tourists Just Walked By!

With no real signage on the outside of this small structure, other tourists didn’t notice Raphael’s shop.  We saw a number of them stop and look our way when they got a whiff of the wonderfully smelling lunch, but none of them came over.  They all looked a bit confused about whether or not it was a real restaurant, then they headed over to the higher priced tourist restaurants (with hosts that would shove menus in their faces as they walked by). 

We can’t attest to the food at those higher priced restaurants, but surely they were overpriced compared to Raphael’s meal, and we are certain the conversation wasn’t as good either.

View into the kitchen from our seats - lunch was cooked right in front of us. best lunch in cancun
View into the kitchen from our seats – lunch was cooked right in front of us.

Seriously, it was the BEST Lunch in Cancun!

Josh and I devoured our lunch, and it was AMAZING!  Honestly, the best lunch in Cancun — probably the best meal we had period in Cancun!  For lunch as well as a huge bottle of water, it only cost us an equivalent of a couple US dollars!  Making this not only the best lunch in Cancun, but probably one of the cheapest!  Given the hugely inflated prices in the tourist zones of Cancun (and much lower quality of food), this is definitely the way to go!

lunch in cancun, enmoladas de pollo, cancun off the beaten path
And that’s lunch – wow!  Absolutely incredible!

Don’t Be Afraid to Try Something Different

Our hearts warmed getting to know Raphael and seeing real life happen in Mexico.  Suddenly we didn’t feel so much like tourists walking around a market getting hounded by the shopkeepers.  We felt like we were a part of the culture and friends with the people.  

So next time you travel, don’t get caught up following the crowds.  And don’t be nervous to explore the lesser known sights or dining establishments, because this may be where you have the best experience.  It’s important to step out of your comfort zone when you travel.  That’s what makes it so exciting, but also the most rewarding.

Check Out Our Mexico Travel Guide!

8 thoughts on “Beyond the Postcard – Stumbling Upon the Best Lunch in Cancun, Mexico”

  1. Kathleen Keremete

    Hey there,

    Can you please post some directions or address of this restaurant please, am heading there next month and would love to try it 🙂

    1. Hi there Kathleen! Thanks for reading and for reaching out.

      Here is a google map – it is around the Mercado 28,-86.8350209,599m/data=!3m1!1e3!4m2!3m1!1s0x85cdd8b2d6575e87:0x640e92bf16b0cc!6m1!1e1

      ** However, it is not one of the main restaurants…it was actually just a shack on the sidewalk! So I can’t tell you if it is still there or not. But it’s definitely not a real restaurant building. We found it while walking back from the market to the parking lot. You can see the 4 main parking lots on the map. Unfortunately, I don’t remember which one we parked at. But I know for sure that it was between the market and the parking lot on the sidewalk — just a white shack with the sides opened up for people to sit and you could smell the food, and look inside.

      There were a couple other similar food shacks around, and I’m sure all of them are quite good. In fact, the clientele for these shacks are the local workers inside the market – so you will see “runners” going back and forth bringing them their lunches. *** DON’T go to the big restaurants inside that cater to tourists. They are way overpriced and nowhere near as good.

      I hope this helps. Enjoy your trip!!!
      – Liz

  2. I’m very afraid to try something different. My mom and a friend of ours both ate a lobster dinner at a restaurant on Isla Mujeres and both of them had to have their gallbladders removed after returning from our trip to Cancun. They are the only one’s who ate that dish. My mom’s situation was so bad that she ended up losing most of her kidney function and now goes to dialysis 3 times a week.The doctors believe it most likely had something to do with the sanitary conditions of the restaurant in Cancun. I will NEVER eat off-resort in Cancun.

    1. Hi Nick – thanks for reading!

      I’m so sorry to hear about your story, that does sound like a terrible experience. However, anything can happen…anywhere. Even at home or in a resort restaurant (where it’s definitely not as shiny and clean as they would like you to think). We rarely eat at our hotel when we travel — and quite often eat the cheap “street food” too. In fact, we are living in Thailand now and routinely eat “street food” everyday. I think it just depends on each person’s preferences.

      From our experience traveling, we can honestly say that sticking to a hotel / resort restaurant will definitely limit your experience. You will pay a lot more, and likely get less of a local or authentic experience. And unless it is a super high-end resort, you may actually be getting worse quality food than you could get just outside the resort gates!

      But this is just our own personal experience and opinion, of course travelers are free to do whatever they like and whatever makes them feel more comfortable.

      Thanks for reading Nick – and we wish you well on your next travels!

      – Liz

  3. Crystal Anning

    Thanks for posting this! We’re thinking about going to Cancun this year for the first time. My husband and I enjoy all inclusive, however we do like to get off the resort and find these local spots. They, more often than not have the BEST food and service. Definitely make the experience unforgettable. We once had the best meal in Hawaii that roasted their chicken in the back of a utility trailer along the side of the road. One of the best meals we had in our 10 days on the island! Any recommendation on where to stay that’s close to the city but not so touristy? Or is that just impossible to do in Cancun?!?
    Thanks for the good read!

    1. Thanks for reading Crystal and for the comment!

      We agree with you that some of the very best food (and experiences) are often in the most unexpected places! But in Cancun, it is a bit difficult to find a place that is close to the action yet ticks all the boxes for an ultimate vacation experience. In Cancun, most of the great resorts and nicest hotels are along the beach areas, which can be a bit further from town..and most of them are quite touristy. Overall, I would recommend the norther part of the Hotel Zone – because it’s the closest to town, but it too is touristy.

      There is an area north east of the city – called Puerto Juarez. It may not be as touristy as the “hotel zone” and it is a bit closer to the city center of Cancun. Here is a link to search some of the hotels in the Puerto Juarez area, perhaps you can find something with high reviews in this area

      Personally, we stayed at a big all-inclusive in the hotel zone. So it was touristy and not as close to the city as we would have liked. But the beaches were wonderful & we had a rental car – so it wasn’t a big deal for us to go into town.

      I hope this helps. Overall, it’s tough to find something not touristy in Cancun – the town is definitely divided and most of the tourists hardly go into the town.

      Have fun on your trip & let us know if you want any other help planning your trip!
      – Liz

  4. I found this blog post looking for a place to eat lunch in Cancun today. Raphael’ place sounded like our kind of eats, so we headed out to find it. So glad we did! Thank you for posting this. We found Raphael at the mercado in the same white shack (with amazing smells wafting onto the air just as you described), and he had some kind of meatball soup and a chicken with mole roja. It was, without a doubt, the best mole I have ever had. It was all so good. I showed Raphael your blog post and he seemed almost flabbergasted that anyone would call his place the best lunch in Cancun. Anyway, I wanted you to know he knows how much you liked his meal now.

    1. Wow – thanks SO much for reading Rand and for telling us about your story!

      This made our day because this is exactly why we do what we do!!! I’m so happy that you found Raphael (and loved the food too – speaking of lunch, I’m so hungry now!). What a cool experience, we really appreciate you leaving a comment here to let us know.

      Thanks again — it’s been a few years since we’ve been to Cancun. But we really want to go back soon, and definitely want to make a stop to visit Raphael for lunch again!!!

      Cheers to you and happy travels!


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